My father had a Kawasaki Mule, an ATV he used often to ride around on his place. One of his friends had a great idea: to drive my dad’s ashes from his house up the country lane to the cemetery, aboard the Mule. My mother thought that a fitting send-off. So yesterday evening, just before six, escorted by the West Feliciana Sheriff, my son Lucas piloted to the Starhill Cemetery gates the Mule his Pawpaw taught him how to drive. Sitting next to him was Mam, his grandmother, who held the box with Paw’s ashes in her lap (a box that a woodworking neighbor made for my dad). In the back of the Mule sat all four of Paw’s granddaughters. As they topped the hill by the cemetery, they were singing “I’ll Fly Away.” I found out later they had sung it all the way from the house.
My older son Matthew and I met them at the gate. I received the box of ashes, Matt took Mam’s arm, and all of us processed solemnly to the grave. The photo above is a detail of a shot someone took from the distance. That’s Lucas in the white shirt, tall Matt with his grandmother on his arm, and me in the front.
We took our seats under the canopy, and the service began. My father was a Freemason, and had requested that his brother Masons send him off with the Masonic funeral ritual. After that, the Methodist pastor offered some beautiful words. I then stood and recited Psalm 23, which I guess is kind of a cliche, but it brought so much comfort to Daddy in his final week that I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. That’s the great thing about Scripture and poetry: they know better than you do what to say. There are times when originality is the enemy of profundity.
Earlier in the afternoon, my mom had asked her cousin Ken Fletcher (you’ll remember him from How Dante Can Save Your Life) to play guitar and sing “I’ll Fly Away” at the funeral’s conclusion — this, because it is the song we sang the moment Paw passed. He agreed, then invited Lucas to accompany him on rhythm guitar. I don’t know how that little man, who loved Paw fiercely, found the strength to say yes, much less to do it, but Lucas joined his cousin Ken at graveside, and played his Paw into paradise. I photographed this, but I have a rule against showing my children’s faces on this blog, so you won’t see the image. Still, I look at the best shot I have, and I see the resolution on my boy’s face, and I realize just how much he grew up this past week.
We issued an open invitation to mourners to help fill in Paw’s grave if they so desired. It was not a big grave, as it only had to hold a small box of ashes. All the grandkids helped, as well as a number of people who were dear to Daddy, and even a couple of friends of mine, who came out of respect for Julie and me. Here’s Lucas in his turn:
After the grave was filled, many of the mourners met us all at my mom’s house for food, drink, and fellowship. Let me tell you, the women of the St. Francisville United Methodist Church know how to take care of folks. Hillocks of fried chicken, people! The sheriff’s department and the fire department also contributed, as did a long list of family, friends, and neighbors. It was quite an event. I didn’t see any tears, or hear a single lamentation. People loved my father deeply, and the sense I got from them most prominently was gratitude. I was able to meet Leonard Pousson, an old Coast Guard buddy of Daddy’s, who had driven in from Lake Charles for the funeral. From my childhood I had heard Daddy’s adventurous Coast Guard stories of “Pousson,” whose name had a certain magical quality in my imagination. And there he was, standing in front of me, telling me how much his friendship back in the day with my dad had meant to him.
Eventually there had to be music. Denise, the hospice nurse, brought her mandolin. Ken played guitar, and so did Lucas. Mike Leming’s brother Danny, also a guitarist, took a turn. Here’s a not-so-great shot I took of my mom and the three Leming sisters dancing to “Brown-Eyed Girl,” brown-eyed Ruthie’s favorite song:
At long last it was time to go home so Mam could get some sleep. This morning, when she woke up, Mam found folks in her house cleaning everything up and getting the place back to normal. “Can you believe how blessed I am?” she told me later. Yes, actually, I can, because that’s how it is here.
This evening Julie, the kids and I went to vespers, same as usual. We are now in the Feast of the Dormition, celebrating the dying, or “falling asleep,” of the Virgin Mary. During the service, I began thinking about what it means to experience natural death. Holding my father’s hand and looking into his face as he passed from this life into the next was the first time I had ever seen anyone die. To think that even the woman who bore God Himself in the flesh had to suffer this fate is perhaps painful to contemplate, but I found myself tonight grateful that all three of my children had been in the room to watch it happen to their grandfather. Julie and I didn’t compel them to be there; though we believe that kids should not be completely shielded from things like this, we also tried to be sensitive to our kids’ needs, and to make sure that they didn’t feel obligated to endure more than they could handle. Yet at that crucial moment, they chose to stand with others in the family, and Daddy’s friends, and to bear witness. It was surely difficult for them to watch his final agonies, but I think they managed to do it because they do not have the fear of death that I did as a child. My guess is that because we talk about death and resurrection so much in Orthodoxy, and because we have a theology of relics (as well as actual relics, including bone shards of saints, in our church), it seems more natural to them than it does to many modern Americans.
I was around Nora’s age when my grandmother died suddenly, and alone, of a heart attack. Her death was the first great trauma of my life, and I did not handle it well. Neither my sister nor I went to the funeral; our parents didn’t permit it. I don’t know why. We never talked about it. I’m sure they decided that it would be too hard on us kids. Surely theirs was a decision taken out of mercy, but it’s not one either my wife or me have ever considered doing for our kids. As horrible as death is, it is also part of life, and there are things that we all do, as members of a family, and members of a community, to mourn together. Tonight in vespers, Lucas sidled up next to me and leaned in, as he does when he feels strong emotions in church. Julie was chanting the service, and when she sang something about Christ conquering death, I whispered into Lucas’s ear, “Because Jesus did what he did, death does not get the last word. That’s why we will see Pawpaw again.” He looked up at me, flashed me a smile, and nodded.
After vespers, we drove by to check on Mam. We ate fried chicken, and heard about her day. She could not stop talking about how kind everyone has been to her. Outside the kitchen window, in the falling darkness, a herd of deer grazed, like the do every evening. For years, she and Daddy would sit out there most evenings and watch them. The deer are still there. There is comfort for her in that.